Glass Eye high res

The Glass Eye

26 October 2023, 7:30pm - 9:00pm

Please scroll down to read Alex Ho and Elayce Ismail's programme note on their new work ‘The Glass Eye’, premiered in this concert, and to read a reflection on the first half of the programme by Hugh Cutting.

The Music The centrepiece of tonight’s concert is the world premiere of The Glass Eye, a new song cycle by Alex Ho, as the culmination of his tenure as our Associate Composer, and the acclaimed writer Elayce Ismail. In an imagined future where humans have retreated underground, there is only one window on the planet they polluted: a glassy pool of water through which they can see, but not feel, the air above. This haunting and atmospheric new song cycle explores the broken connection between humans and the natural world, and is a warning against the destructive power of human nature.

The Artists Exceptional countertenor Hugh Cutting gave a memorable performance at last year’s Festival, hot on the heels of his triumph at the prestigious Kathleen Ferrier Awards. Pianist Dylan Perez, a former Oxford Song Young Artist, was recently described by The Sunday Times as ‘sublime and profoundly intuitive’ for his widely acclaimed recording of the complete songs of Samuel Barber.

This concert is generously supported by Nigel & Griselda Hamway and the Vaughan Williams Foundation, and is presented as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme Everything is Connected season.

The Glass Eye was commissioned by Oxford International Song Festival, with generous support from the Nicholas John Trust, the Bishopsdown Trust and the Hinrichsen Foundation.
The Glass Eye will be recorded live by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast
  • Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924)
  • A Soft Day (1913) Op. 140 no.3 from A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster
Notes on the Programme

The Glass Eye - composer & author note

Music: Alex Ho / Words: Elayce Ismail 

In an imagined future where humans have retreated underground, there is only one window on the planet they polluted: a glassy pool of water through which they can see, but not feel, the air above. Inspired by my memory of seeing the haunting and atmospheric Five Flower Lake in Jiuzhaigou National Park in China, this new song cycle explores the broken connection between humans and the natural world, and is a warning against the destructive power of human nature. 
© Elayce Ismail (2023)

It has been a joy to work with Elayce Ismail, Hugh Cutting and Dylan Perez on this 45-minute song cycle. It is split into ten songs with two additional solo piano interludes. I see The Glass Eye as a journey that pivots between a siren - one warning of the delicate and destructive relationship between humans and the environment - and a set of lamentations grieving the violence we have inflicted and inevitably will continue to inflict. Our blurred sense of past, present and future is itself a central pillar of this narrative told from two perspectives: a narrator and a single human. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion and draws out a tension between time running out and timelessness. What happens when time is so short it disappears? Does time disappear or do we?
The Glass Eye is dedicated to the ones who do less to be more.
© Alex Ho (2023)


Before Alex’s piece, we wanted to open the programme with a close examination of man’s relationship with nature at its closest and most fruitful. These five songs represent this idealised symbiotic bond, valuing the environment and ecology for themselves whilst enjoying what they give experientially to human beings.

We begin with Stanford’s A Soft Day; Winifred Mary Letts’ text takes us through a sensual perception of the day: ‘a wind from the south … a scent of drenching leaves … the soaking grass […] crushed by my two bare feet’. The speaker isn’t using nature as allegory for internal human experiences, but simply reflecting on the present moment as it unfolds. Time simply passes with the rain dripping on the leaves, and a sense of uninterrupted calm pervades.

Ireland’s beloved and much-performed Sea Fever is a celebration of man’s relationship with the ocean. The reason for choosing it for this specific programme is that it is focussed on the experience of simply being at sea - ‘the lonely sea and the sky … the seagulls crying … the blown spume’ are not being linked to human needs or at the mercy of man, but simply part of the natural cycle of life and death (‘when the long trick’s over’).

Vaughan Williams’ setting of Tennyson’s The Splendour Falls is perhaps second in fame to Britten’s in his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; where Britten brings out something very impassioned, Vaughan Williams’ song is somehow calmer, and feels more eternal. The first verse tells the story of the mythic scene, the ‘castle walls and snowy summits old in story’. Verse two zooms in to our human relationship with the earth; we are inspired by nature to myth and legend as the speaker calls us to ‘hear … the horns of Elf Land faintly blowing’. By the third verse, we are seeing our human experiences (‘soul to soul’) in nature as it becomes our metaphor. Whilst there is a link here that is formed between the earth and man, it is a healthy and refined relationship, rather than a one-sided abusive using of the earth by humankind.

About Here by Errollyn Wallen parallels A Soft Day as a meditation on standing in nature and feeling time pass, only this time it’s a few hours later towards dusk. The speaker sits on a hillside waits for a lunar eclipse (‘a glimpse of the moon in the sun, a rare moon’). In the moment of contemplation, the ‘life behind me pales’ and there is a sense of what is shared between us and the sky; the speaker knows that it will be filled, inevitably, with a full moon. And although it is so far beyond us - ‘such a view of heaven’ - we are happy to sit and meditate in the vastness of the worlds around us.

“Commit yourself to do whatever it is you can contribute in order to create a healthy and sustainable future - the world needs you desperately. Find that in yourself and make a commitment; that is what will change the world.” These words of John Denver perfectly capture the essence of his Rhymes and Reasons: that it is a conscious choice to safeguard the life around us, including that of the planet. ‘For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers’ marks the profound link between all of life on earth. The song concludes with the idea that ‘we can find a better way’ of living. John Denver himself was thoroughly outspoken about environmental concerns as well as peace, and believed in this joint responsibility to live WITH the Earth, not on or instead of it…

© Hugh Cutting (2023)

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13 October 2023 | 11:00am

Art:Song - Images, Words, Music

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